Graphic design used to require physical work. To compose letterheads, business cards, brochures, magazines, books, and posters, you hunched over a desk or a light table. You cut and pasted paper or assembled metal type on a printing press. You processed 35mm film by hand, developing pictures in a darkroom with chemicals.
In 1984, Apple’s Macintosh arrived and changed everything. Layout software such as Aldus PageMaker and its successors enabled designers to make changes with a click. Graphic design transitioned from the workbench to the computer screen, in what we came to call the desktop publishing revolution. Design work moved from the laborious world of hands-on creativity to the freer but more abstract digital realm, where you can see the results of choices instantly—but each decision carries less weight, because you can undo it with a single command.
Today, we’re on the verge of another revolution, as artificial intelligence and machine learning turn the graphic design field on its head again. The vision is, to quote one project’s slogan, “websites that just make themselves.” Software will evaluate your text content, line of business, and imagery, and spit out finished pages without your having to lift a finger. These kinds of automated tools will arrive on the web first, but print design will change, too, as design-software makers inject machine learning into their layout tools and apps.
For all the noise about AI-driven graphic design, however, today’s reality lags stubbornly behind the grand vision. Many of the products now available will disappoint users expecting miraculous results from AI genies. That’s a letdown, for sure, but it also gives us some time to think about what kind of design work we want machines to do for us, and what roles we should be reserving for human beings.
The Grid promises to hand the design of your site over to an AI named Molly: “She’s quirky, but will never ghost you, never charge more, never miss a deadline, never cower to your demands for a bigger logo…Molly can apply a simple five-color palette to your site in more than 200,000 unique ways.”
One of the earliest entries into the artificial intelligence web design marketplace, The Grid has been promoting “AI websites that design themselves” since it launched a crowdfunding campaign in 2014. “Conceptually feels very next level, an obvious, natural progression just waiting to happen,” tweeted 37Signals/Basecamp founder Jason Fried when The Grid’s promotional video made the rounds of the web design community.